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Revitalizing the Rec Letter
Posted 03/01/2018 12:00PM

College Counseling Director Michelle Rasich has helped to fine-tune a new, effective format for recommendation letters. Now she's leading the charge to teach her peers about it, and it's gaining traction across the globe.

When College Counseling Director Michelle Rasich and three colleagues from other institutions learned they'd be presenting a conference session in a 20,000-square-foot ballroom at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, they suspected there'd been a miscommunication.

The group was scheduled to give a presentation called "Recs that Change Lives" early on Friday, September 15, at the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) annual conference.

"We were convinced there had been a mistake, that this was not the right room for us—we were supposed to be in a smaller room," she said. A coordinator confirmed the roughly 1,000-seat space was indeed for them, and 958 attendees showed up that Friday morning.

"None of us had ever presented to a group that size," Michelle said. "I was more energized than nervous, because I was so excited to have that reach and to be able to affect that many people."

According to feedback from attendees, she and her presenters lived up to the hype. Comments included, "THIS alone was worth the travel to Boston"; "Best I've attended in my 31 years!"; "Life changing"; and "Michelle is amazing. I want to go to every session she does at every conference."

Word had already been spreading on "Recs that Change Lives," organized-narrative letters of recommendation for high schoolers applying to college. Michelle named the concept as a nod to Colleges that Change Lives, a book and subsequent organization of student-centered colleges well-known among college counselors. The letters use a series of headers and bullet points so they're easier for admissions officers to read and simpler for college counselors to write. Specifically, Michelle coined headers such as "Distinctive Qualities" and "College Readiness and Recommendation" based on what admissions officers told her they're trying to find in the letters.

"They're on a scavenger hunt," she said. "They're looking for this, so why not just give it to them instead of making them dig for it."

The Problem

When Michelle started at Rowland Hall in 2010, she devoted ample time to writing traditional two-page letters. "I was spending a lot of time in transition—making sure that paragraph one was logically and smoothly tied to paragraph two," she said. She spent up to two and a half hours on one letter, while a college-admissions officer spent 15 minutes reading an entire 15- to 20-page student file. Accordingly, the number of college applications continues to increase in part due to the Common Application, Michelle explained, but individual colleges aren't necessarily hiring more admissions staff.

While on a bus tour of midwestern colleges with peers from the Association for College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), Michelle broached the problem to colleagues. There has to be a better way, she told fellow counselors, to work smarter, not harder, and to better advocate for high schoolers while taking into account the realities faced by admissions officers.

Some of Michelle's New England peers discussed a format they'd long been using. It entailed organizing letter content in a more visual way, with headers and bullets, so readers could more easily find what they were looking for, whether that was extracurricular activities or academic growth and trends.

The Data-Driven Solution

So counselors on the ACCIS bus tour mocked up a sample letter, and over the summer, Michelle—data enthusiast that she is—gathered feedback on admissions officers' reactions to the new format. Michelle and Associate Director of College Counseling Coral Azarian care very much about collecting data to assess their work, Michelle said. They regularly poll students, for instance, to track trends related to college counseling.

"We don't want to assume that we're doing our jobs in a way that is beneficial to students and college readers," Michelle said. "We want to know for a fact."

Michelle surveyed the 25 colleges that (a) Rowland Hall students most frequently apply to, and that (b) accept letters of recommendation. Seventeen representatives responded with positive feedback, and Michelle made minor adjustments to headers based on suggestions. She implemented the new format the following school year, and surveyed admissions officers once more. Feedback this time, she said, was even more positive. A representative from Vanderbilt University, for instance, wrote, "I really like the format, as it allows me to focus on a certain section. The categories that you've chosen are helpful and things that we would look for in our process." Other admissions officers encouraged Michelle to continue using the new style and to teach others about it.

Evangelizing 'Recs that Change Lives'

As an alumna of Bowdoin College, Michelle is a staunch believer in the common good. So after admissions colleagues praised the new format in the second survey, she led the charge to share "Recs that Change Lives." She wanted to spread the gospel on this effective method that steered counselors toward a more concise style—Michelle now spent about an hour on each letter—without sacrificing the personal details admissions professionals desired.

For several years, Michelle and her colleagues presented the concept at regional conferences. Traction at that level inspired them to present at NACAC, which opened the floodgates. Every day for a month after that Boston session, counselors from across the world emailed Michelle requesting the presentation materials. Now, six months later, knowledge of the format is nearly ubiquitous.

John McLaughlin, associate dean of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, co-presented with Michelle at NACAC. He's seen more organized-narrative recommendations come across his desk over the past year. The format allows writers to get to the point, he said, which can be useful for recommenders writing dozens of letters. "I think Michelle's work to share the approach has been a key factor in its growing popularity," he said. "It was thoughtful and generous to do that, and that's Michelle."

Michelle likes to bill the letters as a win-win-win: "It's a win for the student, because we are able to advocate more effectively based on the feedback; it's a win for the reader; and it's definitely a win for the counselor," she said. "I always put the counselors last in that equation because that's how it should be focused—the student, the audience, the writer."

Writers may be last in that equation, but they're still reaping benefits. Michelle said public-school counselors have told her time saved writing letters now goes back into spending more nights and weekends with their families. And of course, there's plenty of buy-in here at Rowland Hall, where 90% of teachers who write recommendation letters use the new format. A group of 12 early adopters included Math Department Chair Brian Birchler and English teacher Kody Partridge. Ms. Partridge said the format keeps her focused on key components of the letter without surrendering to a formula. Mr. Birchler said it helps him provide a clearer picture of the student, and to do so more efficiently: "As someone who has to spend a long time to write well, the bulleted format really lets me focus on telling the story of a student's experience with mathematics."

Service work by Michelle and Coral continues to bolster Rowland Hall's already-strong reputation in the fields of college counseling and admissions. In addition to regularly presenting "Recs that Change Lives," Michelle serves on a NACAC ad hoc committee and is co-chair for that organization's next annual conference here in Salt Lake City. Coral is the social committee co-chair for that same conference, and currently serves on the executive board of the Rocky Mountain Association for College Admissions Counseling, which Michelle led four years ago.

"Recs that Change Lives" has shone an international spotlight on Rowland Hall, and Michelle is still soaking it all in. "I'm so proud to be representing Rowland Hall at this level and to be contributing to the common good of all counselors and admissions professionals," she said. "This is a career hallmark."

Michelle Rasich with student

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